How to know the good from the bad in the captive wildlife industry

2018-04-19 18:00 - Gabi Zietsman
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Cape Town - In South Africa the captive wildlife industry is booming, and makes up a big part of the tourism sector's attractions beside wildlife parks and nature reserves. Many tourists may actually never see a wild animal in its natural habitat - depending on costs, accessibility and survival of a species - thus captive centres may be the only opportunity they get to see wildlife.

Classification of these facilities can be problematic, as some market themselves as conservation centres, when in reality they're breeding farms, and some even claim endorsement from wildlife organisations that either doesn't exist or are their own organisation, amplifying the need for scrutiny. Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) hopes to make the industry more transparent through their certification process. 

SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Captive cheetah breeding is reaching epidemic proportions in SA

FTT certifies tourism businesses that follow fair labour practices, green initiatives and ethical treatment of animals that promote responsible tourism to travellers. They believe the captive wildlife industry will never go away and as South Africa has a big game breeding economy they also want to be careful in their classifications.

According to FTT, 71% of tourists want to buy holidays from companies that care for animals, but every year between 2 and 4 million tourists unknowingly support attractions that do not benefit animal welfare and conservation. Because of the lack of consensus on the proper categorisation of these centres, there's urgent need for regulation in the sector.

FTT is currently developing guidelines specifically around captive wildlife tourism, but have delayed releasing them as the Southern Africa Tourism Association (SATSA) is also developing guidelines, and FTT wants to prevent confusion in the tourism industry. Once they are released, it will be widely distributed and available on their website for responsible travellers.

ALSO SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: Close interaction with captive lions is not conservation

SEE: New Fair Trade volunteer criteria launched in SA

State of the industry in SA

Besides the ongoing fight against canned lion hunting, another extremely worrying trend is emerging in South Africa, where cheetahs are bred on demand, taken away from their mothers to be hand-reared for cub petting, to become well-behaved ambassador species, or to be exported for either “zoological” reasons or into the pet trade.

With the number of cheetahs in captivity soaring to more than 600 kept in about 80 different facilities, concerns have been raised that this industry is showing alarming similarities of the lion breeding industry, with its links to canned hunting and legal lion bone trade.

The industry was also rocked in March this year when a woman was killed by a lion at Kevin Richardson's, aka the Lion Whisperer, sanctuary where walking with these predators are marketed as helping conservation. This sparked severe criticism from conservationists who see this kind of interaction as dangerous and not useful to the preservation of the species.

SEE: Cash before Conservation? A damning report on the commoditisation of lions

How to spot the good from the bad

Currently there are some measures in place that determine whether a captive wildlife organisation gets the FTT stamp of approval, and travellers can also use these when deciding which centre to visit and to donate to.

  • Genuine wildlife sanctuaries care for un-releasable animals for the rest of their lives and no human interactions, breeding or trading occurs.
  • Wildlife rehabilitation centres treat hurt or abandoned animals with the aim of releasing them back into the wild and have limited human interaction with experts and volunteers.
  • There can be no physical interaction with large carnivores, elephants, rhinos, hippos, large primates, ostriches and venomous snakes. FTT does not define close interaction however as this differs too broadly between animals and activities, i.e. walking in a nature reserve to track cheetahs vs going into an enclosure with a tame lion.
  • FTT does not approve of any facilities where there are performing wild animals, who are also sometimes used as photographic props.
  • Elephant or ostrich back riding adversely affects animal welfare.
  • Lion breeding is viewed as poor practice.
  • Petting baby carnivores and other wild animals is also a no-go as there's normally a lack of transparency around where the babies come from and where they go when they are grown up.
  • If wild animals at captive facilities are obtained from the wild, then be wary of that business. FTT has found that very few babies at elephant orphanages are truly abandoned in the wild and investigate in-depth before certifying these facilities.
  • An organisation needs to be transparent about their activities regarding wild animals ie, a breeding farm could get FTT approval if they market themselves exactly as is.
  • Although they certify certain types of zoos, there are restrictions in place, i.e. birds' wings can't be clipped and animals need to be free-roaming, like FFT-certified Birds of Eden and Monkeyland near Plettenberg Bay.

FTT not only operates in South Africa, but also certifies tourism businesses in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, had mutual recognition agreements with other African certification programmes in Botswana, Namibia, Seychelles, Tanzania and Kenya.

ALSO SEE: #ShockWildlifeTruths: East London Zoo plans to get more animals despite global petition to shut down